Make no mistake, Dennis Erickson doesn't want his Sun Devils to overlook NAU, a team that has not beaten a FBS/Division I-A football team since 1987 but nonetheless came to Tempe two years ago and had ASU sweating out a 14-14 halftime score before eventually faltering in the second half. "They play with three down guys, two down guys, they play with five defensive backs, they play with three linebackers. They change it up. So they're standing guys up and putting guys down. It's kind of the old Bear defense. Cal Poly runs it. Actually, Dick Tomey ran it at Arizona for a long period of time. It's the flex defense, is what we call it. It can cause confusion. They'll bring different people. They'll blitz quite a bit. They'll bring five guys. You just don't know where they're coming from. It creates some confusion. For us, I've faced it in my coaching career quite often over the years. It's not like we haven't seen it before. Against that you've got to try to keep it as simple as you can, particularly in the running game and your pass protections. They'll bring guys that are unaccounted for, just because of what they do blitz-wise, so we've got to be very aware of that."
Erickson wasn't coaching the Sun Devils then, but he's had his share of similar experiences.
"I look back on my career and when I was at Oregon State the year that we won the Fiesta Bowl and lost one football game, we opened [the season against] Eastern Washington in Corvallis and had to score at the end of the game to win it and very fortunate to win that football game," Erickson said on Monday. "A year before that we played Georgia Southern in Corvallis and won by three points.
"[NAU's] got a great program, their players are going to come down here and be hungry. They don't have anything to lose and they're going to give us everything we want. The bottom line for us is that we need to be ready to play. It's the start of a season. It's an opponent that if we don't play well we'll get beat."
It's an opponent that if we don't play well we'll get beat
Which also translates roughly to this:
If we play well, we'll win
So the reality is this: Saturday is more about ASU than NAU.
Sure, NAU is a pretty good FCS (Football Championship Subdivision,) team, just missing out on The Sports Network Football Championship Subdivision poll (first in others receiving votes) but it is still a FCS program, a step down from the FBS.
If The Sun Devils play as they should, this game should be a blowout, regardless of how pesky the Lumberjacks' unconventional 3-3-5 defense can be.
Senior quarterback Rudy Carpenter knows the NAU defense isn't to be taken lightly, even as the team is replacing seven defensive starters, including five of its front six from a squad that had a modest 6-5 record (3-3 in the Big Sky) last year. He was the signal caller in that game two years ago when the Sun Devils were deadlocked with the Lumberjacks 14-14 at the half.
"I'm not going to lie, this game for me is a little stressful because I know that we're playing a team that has everything to gain by playing us," Carpenter said. "They're going to be ready. A lot of those kids are from the Valley and they're going to play in front of their family in our stadium and it's a big deal for them. They played us tough two years ago so there should be no reason why our team shouldn't be ready to play and ready to come out and play to the best of our ability."
So Carpenter may be a little nervous. But he's also has a good memory. He no doubt remembers the second half of that game against NAU on Aug. 31 2006, when his team shut out the Lumberjacks in the second half, winning comfortably 35-14.
That was a pretty average ASU offense, struggling all season with the passing game, which eventually contributed to the dismissal of the team's head coach.
This ASU offense? It should be much better. So the bottom line is this: It shouldn't be a close game.
Whether it will be is an entirely different matter.
Head coach: Jerome Souers (11th season)
2007 Season: 6-5 (3-3 Big Sky)
Returning quarterback Lance Kriesien is a fifth-year senior who failed to separate himself from two others in competition for the job in camp, and it's still not entirely clear which player will start versus the Sun Devils. Kriesien is a big, 6-3, 241 pound dual-threat player who is can make plays outside the pocket with his athleticism. He has more rushing touchdowns that passing touchdowns in his career, and spent much of his early career as a receiver.
The Lumberjacks return several other key skill position players, including running back Alex Henderson, a 5-11, 205 pound junior who has been an all-conference selection in each of his first two seasons. Henderson already ranks 10th on the all-time school list with 1,913 yards. Last season he rushes for 899 yards on just 152 carries, with six touchdowns.
Senior wide receiver Skyler Moore, a 6-3, 232-pounder, had 39 catches for 687 yards and nine touchdown as a sophomore in 2006 before missing more than half of the 2007 season due to injury. He is the headliner of a relatively talented wide receiver group.
NAU also boasts a 2007 Sports Network honorable mention All-American, 6-2, 255 pound senior tight end Shaun Fitzpatrick, who had 28 catches for 360 yards and one touchdown last season.
As mentioned, NAU loses five of its front six including all of its starting down linemen from last season and two key linebackers. It does, however return most of its secondary, which is a team strength led by senior cornerback K.J. Gerard, a 2007 third-team All-American who had six interceptions and 57 tackles on the year. Gerard is rangy at 6-1, 180 pounds, and he played well two years ago in Tempe with five tackles, a forced fumble and a pass deflection.
The Lumberjacks have another All-American candidate in the defensive backfield, senior safety Cyrus Igono, a 5-10, 205-pounder who led the team with 79 tackles last season to go along with three interceptions and two fumble recoveries.
Erickson on the NAU defense:
"When you're in a situation where you don't have anything to lose you can gamble a little bit more. But that's their style and they've got a good secondary and they play a lot of man coverage back there and hopefully we can try to take advantage of that. It's unique and you don't see it a lot but people who run it run it very well."
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